WHISTLER, British Columbia -- As massive, wet snowflakes fell on the Creekside alpine racing stadium Friday afternoon, Lindsey Vonn worked an adoring crowd. Autographs here, photos there, always a smile. The hood was pulled up on her white, U.S. Ski team jacket and a hat was yanked down to the top of her eyebrows, but there was no mistaking who was beneath the down and wool. You cannot cover up stardom.
The next major stop for Vonn is Hollywood, after a brief layover in Vancouver for a party Saturday night in her honor thrown by sponsor Vail Resorts. On Monday night, she is scheduled to appear as one of the guests on Jay Leno's first Tonight Show back in the 11:30 p.m. time slot, part of a bright lights blitz that will include appearances on Ellen (airing Tuesday), Access Hollywood (also airing Tuesday), The Daily 10 and the Ryan Seacrest radio show.
Media of all forms will wear out keyboards debating the degree of Vonn's success at the 2010 Olympics. She skied five races and won two medals -- a dominant and defining gold in the downhill on Feb. 17 and a cautious bronze in the Super-G on Feb. 20. She was in position to medal in the super combined when she crashed in the slalom and she skied fast in the first run of the giant slalom before crashing within sight of the finish. Friday, she straddled a slalom gate early in the first run, while racing with a splint on her right pinkie finger.
Vonn, however, has already shaped her own analysis, and fairly. "I'm definitely happy with what I've done here," Vonn said after the slalom. "I know I could have done better. In super combined, I was poised to win a medal, but I wanted the gold and maybe I risked a little bit too much [in the slalom run, after leading the downhill].
"In the GS, I was an underdog, but I went after it," Vonn said. "And the slalom has been a struggle for me all year. I have the gold medal that I came here for." And with that, the publicity train that brought Vonn to Whistler (I was on it, right up front), steamed on forward.
But even as Vonn was exiting Whistler, Maria Riesch of Germany, Vonn's close friend and rival, was standing on a victory podium, receiving flowers for her gold medal in the slalom. It was Riesch's second gold, making her the most-decorated female skier at Games, and one of five women who won two medals each. (The others: Elisabeth Goergl of Austria with two bronzes, Julia Mancuso of the U.S. and Tina Maze of Slovenia with two silvers each, in addition to Riesch and Vonn).
With one event remaining -- Saturday's men's slalom -- the Vancouver alpine program has resisted expectations almost every day. Vonn might have dominated (like she has on the World Cup), but she did not. Mancuso might have done nothing (like she has on the World Cup for two years), but she did not. Bode Miller of the U.S. might have flamed out (like he did in Turin four years ago), but instead he won a full set of three medals.
Most surprisingly, the U.S., with eight medals heading into the men's slalom, is assured of winning the overall alpine medal count for the first since 1984 (when there were only six races, not 10). This team victory comes four years after Hermann Maier mocked the U.S. Ski Team's ambitious motto "Best In The World." All of those medals were won in the first six races, but the lead has held.
Austria and Norway trail with four medals each (an outright disaster for the former), meaning that neither can catch the U.S., even with an unlikely sweep of the slalom. (And the U.S., with Miller and Ted Ligety, has an outside shot at adding to its medal total on the final day of the Games).
Miller's performance was a validation of his talent, even slightly past his prime. Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway matched Miller's gold-silver-bronze. (If Miller's medals were a surprise, Svindal's were not; he won the World Cup overall title in 2009, one year after Miller's second overall title).
Among the most emotional medals won was Austrian Marlies Schild's silver behind Riesch in Friday's slalom. Schild suffered a broken leg in training for the season-opening World Cup giant slalom at Soelden, Austria, in October of 2008 and did not participate in a race for 19 months. This year she concentrated only on slalom, racing not only in World Cup races, but also lower-level competitions. "It was far to go, coming back," she said yesterday.
There is no question that Vonn did plenty to validate all the hype that preceded her into the Olympics, but in the end the Games proved themselves unwilling to crown champions simply by acclaim. Races must be run, results must be posted on a scoreboard. In the Super-G, most notably, Vonn (in consultation with her husband, Thomas) went into a four-corners of sorts -- Thomas will say "Just ski solid," code for 90 percent -- after skiing fast on the top of the hill. She took the lead, but Andrea Fischbacher of Austria and Maze both beat her. They had better conditions, but they both delivered.
Few athletes have entered an Olympics under more pressure than Vonn. Last Saturday night I met with her before she was celebrated by the U.S. Ski Team for her medals. She looked more exhausted than happy, but that, too, has been a learning process. "The next time," she said, "I'll know what to expect. I'll know what my emotions will be like, so that I don't wear myself out."
Vonn elaborated on Saturday afternoon. "I knew this before [the Olympics]," she said. "But it's just a ski race. But it resonates more when you actually know how to handle it, when you've been in the starting gate with millions of people expecting you to win ... and you actually do win. And to know that I can achieve that, no matter what anyone says, that gives me a lot of confidence. And I know I can do it again."
After Hollywood, she returns to the World Cup for two more weekends of racing, in pursuit of her third consecutive overall title. Her body has taken an extraordinary beating this year, with a badly bruised wrist and shin and the broken pinkie. "My physio keeps saying, 'How many times do I have to put you together in one year?'" Vonn said.
Riesch will surely be waiting, now (she trails Vonn by just 137 points), and beyond. Vonn has 31 World Cup wins, Riesch has 13. They are both only 25 years old. "I think Lindsey is going to keep dominating, but I guess Riesch did win two gold medals here," said U.S. slalom veteran Sarah Schleper. Swiss star Lara Gut, 18, who missed the entire season with a hip injury, looms as a major threat.
A week ago, Martin Hager, the Red Bull trainer who supervises Vonn's demanding dryland training, said he has already been hard at work formulating workouts for the spring of 2010. "Some new things," he said. "Some different things."
The next time will be familiar, perhaps, but no easier.